I know your struggle right now. You’re excited to jump into this new adventure and buy your first AR-15. But you don’t quite know where to start. The huge number of options and configurations is downright overwhelming.
Before you go down this path, I want you to answer a simple question: Why do you want an AR-15?
I don’t mean that in that judgemental way that a disbelieving friend or relative might ask it. Rather, I want you to think about the role you need this rifle to perform.
If you’re like most first time buyers, then you might have a notion you want to have it for “just in case” moments. That means it needs to be reliable.
On the other hand, you might decide that you want it for competition or hunting someday, so it also needs to be accurate.
Then, of course, there’s the “cool factor” and you want to proudly post pictures all over the internet. Frankly, this route is a bad idea- but regardless of what I think, that means it needs to look good, right?
It seems like there’s more information out there than you can easily digest. In the end, you might get caught up in the same thing so many of us did when we started out: paralysis by analysis.
So let’s start there.
Quick Note from Matt
Welcome to Version 3.0 of this field guide, one of the most popular articles on the site. In this update, I’ve included more of my thinking about the “baseline” of the AR-15 platform and what it means to deviate from that baseline. Aside from that, there’s the usual minor grammatical fixes or phrasing changes as well as some updated links.
As a bonus, I recorded a podcast episode to serve as a companion to this article. The content is very similar, but I know some readers prefer the more conversational tone of hearing me actually explain my thoughts.
Bottom Line Up Front
I spend a lot of time explaining the “why” of things. It’s a side effect of spending most of my professional life training others. But I get it, you might not have time to go through the rest of the article right now and get my reasoning.
This isn’t a recipe blog, after all. So, let’s get right to some recommendations.
I want to be up front and tell you that my recommendations aren’t exactly on the budget end of the price spectrum. They aren’t on the high end, either. Quality costs money and my goal is saving you time and expenses in the long run.
Each of the rifles I suggest here are reliable, accurate, and will serve you well for years before you feel like you need something else. That’s not to say you wont eventually want something new, though. Tat’s how black rifle disease (BRD) works.
One more thing, I am not sponsored and nobody is paying me to hawk their wares. What follows is simply my suggestions based on personal observation, research, and good reputation.
Complete AR-15 Rifles
This is the most straight-forward path, though the slightly more expensive one. The alternative, which I’ll get to in a minute, is buying the lower and assembled upper separately.
Colt 6720 Lightweight Carbine
The lightweight Colt 6720 is nearly perfect for a first AR-15. I would personally prefer that it have a mid-length gas system, but that’s certainly not a deal breaker. With this particular option, you are set for a long time and are sure to have a very functional and easy to handle rifle.
With CZ’s recent acquisition of Colt, I don’t know what the future availability of this rifle will look like. But if you can find one, then jump on it.
Centurion Arms CM4
The Centurion Arms CM4 is pretty much exactly the rifle I advocate in this article. It has a 16″ barrel with a mid length gas system, lightweight rail and profile, and comes from a reputable source.
The owner, Monty, is a former Naval Special Warfare NCO with a wealth of experience on the weapons system and a reputation for innovation.
BCM Lightweight Recce
As a slightly more mainstream company, Bravo Company USA offers a ton of configurations and options. The Lightweight Recce MCMR is a fantastic alternative in the same style of the Centurion CM4.
There are many other complete rifles I could recommend from Daniel Defense, Sionics, and other brands I like.
These companies all make great rifles, and I vouch for them. If this wasn’t your first AR-15, I would probably even suggest one. But you will pay more for these than the ones I already listed, and they honestly don’t bring a whole lot more to the table.
Some people prefer to buy a lower and upper separately. This is actually my usual route.
You can actually save a little money with this path since you can buy half the weapon now and the other half later. You also have a lot more configuration options of pre-built uppers ready to go. I’m not really going to suggest complete lowers because there are simply too many out there to choose from, but an easy answer is any of the companies I’ve mentioned so far also have stripped and complete lower receivers.
These are my suggestions for your first AR-15 project:
BCM Lightweight 16″
The BCM Lightweight Standard 16″ is a great starter upper. It is what I used for my second project, and the base inspiration for the minimum capable carbine.
This provides a solid base to grow from, and comes in a lower price point than going with something a bit more “kitted out” with rails and other hardware. If you prefer that it already have a rail system (or no front sight base), then look at the lightweight MCMR-13 version.
SIONICS Patrol Three Upper
SIONICS is not a commonly known name in the industry, but it’s backed by some very dedicated people. Their Patrol Three Upper is a great option for a free-floated upper half.
SIONICS also produces this same configuration as a complete rifle if you wanted to go that route as well, and I think it’s another great option.
Guiding Principles for Your First AR-15
The AR-15 is the most popular self-loading rifle in the country. Manufacturers spend an awful lot of money to influence your opinion one way or another. In truth, once you get to a certain level of quality the subtle differences from one rifle to the next aren’t really worth worrying about.
The job of marketing is to make you think otherwise.
I hate wasting money. Because of that, I spend a lot of time researching nearly every purchase I make. You’re probably the same. As an example, it took me three months to choose which 4” fixed blade knife I wanted for a gift. You can imagine what the year and a half looked like while I researched my first AR-15. Even then, I still got parts of it wrong.
To start this off, I want to tell you my guiding principles when it comes to gear. You’re going to see me repeat these all over the site as you read through articles.
I’ve learned to follow two guiding principles:
- Mission drives gear
- Buy nice or buy twice
Mission Drives Gear
This is an old military saying meaning that you should select equipment best suited to the task at hand. It doesn’t make sense to use a very short-barreled rifle designed for close quarters in a long range precision role. Likewise, there is little benefit to using a nice precision match rifle for dumping high volumes of cheap ammunition into a dirt berm with you buddies.
As simple as the idea of mission drives gear may seem, there are an awful lot of people out there who aren’t following it.
The AR-15, and all its various configurations, is one of the most well-understood and popular rifles in the world. There are hundreds, if not thousands of configurations.
The US military itself has worked through several variants:
- M16A1 with triangular handguards, skinny barrel, and stupid-tough fixed rear sight
- M16A2 with round handguards, “government” profile barrel and adjustable sights
- M16A4 with railed handguards, detachable sights, and magnified optics
- M4 and M4A1 carbine with short barrels and all sorts of gizmos hanging off them, great for urban and mid-range combat.
- Mk12 Special Purpose Rifle with match barrel, free floated rail, and magnified optics
- Mk18 CQBR with a super short barrel, purpose-built for clearing buildings
- The “Recce” rifle, which was a special home brew precision M4 with 16” barrel
The thing to remember is that each of these configurations had a purpose in mind. Sure, government bureaucracy sometimes got in the way and drove some bad decisions, like the “government” profile barrel. But, in all, they do their specific jobs extremely well.
The more you specialize an AR-15 for a particular role, the worse it performs at others. For example, short barreled rifles are great for quick handling at close range but have dramatic velocity drop off and skull-rattling concussion. Heavy barreled precision rifles suited to long-range shooting are a relative pain to carry.
That brings us back to the question: What is your mission? Why do you want to buy an AR-15?
If you’re like most of us, you don’t have an armory of each configuration to hand out on a situational basis. At least not starting out.
For a beginner, it makes sense that the first rifle does a pretty good job at everything.
Buy Nice or Buy Twice
If you are going to buy something, then buy enough quality to last.
When it comes to AR-15s, hucksters say Part X is “just as good as” Part Z. They usually don’t have any proof of the claim. The end result is that the guy looking for a good deal buys the cheaper thing, and it breaks on them.
Now they need to buy a replacement.
I’ve seen someone buy three of the exact same cheap red dot sight. The first one broke after a few months, so they replaced it with the second. That one made it about a year before they replaced it with another. In all, the money spent on three copies of the same cheap red dot was more than buying a single quality one. That quality sight would have lasted practically forever, and come with a lifetime warranty.
I’m not saying you should spend huge amounts of cash. I used to say “Buy once, cry once” all of the time. But I realized that I was encouraging the wrong line of thought.
Market Price and Quality Control
The sweet spot for balancing quality and price with AR-15s is usually between $900 and $1200.
If a manufacturer starts advertising too far below that price, then you have to ask what compromises they are making to get there. I’m not saying that a bargain bin $500 AR-15 is going to explode in your hands tomorrow. But I am saying that to reach a $500 price point, you don’t know what kind of loose tolerances, quality control, testing, metallurgy, and care of assembly went into the product.
If the gun only ever turns money into noise by dumping lead into the berm, then it wouldn’t matter. But if you ever suspect that you might be in a position where the rifle going bang every time you pulled the trigger is important to you, then you should consider spending a little more.
Setting Baselines: A Brief History of the AR-15
With the basic rules on the table, let’s talk about baselines. By that, I mean starting with a proven reliable configuration to serve as our model. I liken this to buying a new 4×4 vehicle like a 4Runner. Toyota designed, tested, and has proven that each component on the vehicle operates reliably for years upon years.
The problem is that enthusiasts aren’t completely satisfied with a stock Toyota 4Runner. It’s not terribly fast, nor does it have all of the electronic gizmos they want. Some folks want to add more lights, racks, bumpers, lift kits, suspension, and other mods. All of these things make for a more capable and fun vehicle, but the tradeoff has to come from somewhere. A supercharger adds power, but stresses the engine. Lift kits and larger tires add ground clearance and off road prowess, but shorten the life of other drivetrain components.
To summarize, every step you take away from the original design introduces variation and complexity that has drawbacks elsewhere, many have negative long term effects. I think the AR-15 is similar to this.
The AR-15 Origin Story
The story of the AR-15 is less about the rifle and more about it’s associated cartridge, the .223 Remington. I’ve written quite a bit about this evolution, but I’ll give you the short version here for context.
For most of modern small arms history, there was a persistent belief that infantry rifles needed to fire the most powerful cartridges that could be tolerated by the average man. Such requirements usually included the ability to make aimed hits at 1000 yards and still take a target down.
As far back as the 1800s, there was a competing theory that a smaller and lighter bullet moving at high velocity was able to deliver most of the terminal capability of a larger bullet at relatively short distances, such as 200 to 300 yards. In 1930, the Army’s R.H. Kent published a report backing the theory with evidence and hypothesized about future development.
The .30 caliber rifle reigned supreme until the 1950’s when another science-driven effort by Norman Hitchman at the Army Operational Research Office (ORO) dug deeply into battlefield casualties, hit probability, and survival factors.
Hitchman stated that the Army’s insistence on 1000-yard capability for the average rifleman was unfounded. Casualties from aimed small arms fire almost all happened within 100 yards, and almost never happened beyond 300 yards. Beyond that, it was essentially as random as shrapnel from artillery or a grenade.
The most important factor for whether or not someone is shot is how long they are exposed and how quickly the shooter can aim and fire. To survive meant being lighter and quicker, and to be effective meant improving sight acquisition speed and rate of accurate fire.
By those standards, Hitchman theorized that the ideal infantry weapon would be lightweight and effective up to 300 yards for aimed fire.
Enter the AR-15
Around this same time, Armalite designs the AR-10 rifle around the newly-adopted 7.62 NATO battle rifle cartridge. Through the use of new manufacturing methods, lightweight aluminum, and composite materials, Armalite is able to reduce the weight of the heavy-hitting rifle. It unsuccessfully competed against the M-14 rifle for adoption by the US Army.
Despite not winning the competition, the lightweight rifle made an impression. Armalite eventually got a request to scale the AR-10 down to shoot the lighter and faster experimental .223 cartridge gaining popularity with several Army Ordnance Office engineers.
I’m skipping a lot of details here, but the end result is a lightweight infantry rifle with a 20″ barrel. The new rifle’s lighter ammunition reduces the load on individual soldiers and allows them increased survivability (or increased ammunition capacity for the same weight) and improved hit probability due to lighter recoil and better ergonomics.
The rifle is suited to combat at less than 300 yards, but still effective to a bit beyond that.
This eventually becomes the M-16, and the rest is history. The primary specs we should pay attention to are light weight, and primarily used as a general purpose rifle for up to 300 yards. This is our baseline.
Your First AR-15: The Minimum Capable Carbine
I started developing this concept several years ago when interest in the AR-15 began spiking among my friends and coworkers. I was the “gun guy,” so they wanted help. The suggestion that follows is the result of nearly ten years of experimentation, competition, training, and study.
It’s not perfect, since everything is a compromise, but it works pretty darn well.
The minimum capable carbine is one that reliably performs most tasks well. This gives you time to learn the ins and outs of the platform and develop your skills with a rifle that grows with you.
This AR-15 carries well, has good accuracy, and is extremely reliable as long as a basic maintenance routine is kept. It is equally suited to home defense as it is carrying on a hike through the woods.
Minimum Capable Carbine Features
- 16″Lightweight mid-length chrome lined barrel with a fixed front sight base
- Alternative: A 20″ lightweight or government profile barrel with fixed front sight base
- Either quality plastic handguards or a basic free float rail
- Quality collapsible stock
- Quality pistol grip of choice
- Standard trigger or something close to it like the BCM PNT or ALG ACT
- Quality rear sight, with or without adjustment
- If you have the money to buy an optic, then do so- buy one of good quality. If you don’t have the funds for a good one, then rock the iron sights until you save for it.
- Bonus: If you plan on using the weapon for defensive purposes, then you should mount a good light on it
- Bonus: You should get a sling, because retention matters
In a moment, I’ll walk you through my choices here and explain each one. But before that, the question will come up:
Should You Build or Buy Your First AR-15?
When I started out, buzz said was that it was cheaper to build your first AR-15. The idea was that you could buy the exact parts that you wanted and assemble them. This was cheaper than buying a complete quality-built rifle and then spending the money to replace the parts that you didn’t want.
It turns out that it was more expensive for me.
The hidden costs added up. From shipping all the individual parts to all the extra tools that I had to buy to complete the assembly. On top of that, I still had to pay someone else to assemble the upper correctly.
I watched them do it and always questioned whether they did it right. To date, that upper has been rebuilt three times.
I spent about $2300 building my first AR, not including the optic. That kind of money could have bought me a KAC SR-15 or some other very high-quality rifle out of the box.
These days, there are so many good manufacturers making such a wide variety of rifles that it is silly to choose the individual part selection route for a first rifle.
My suggestion, especially for your first AR-15, is to buy a complete rifle from a good manufacturer. My favorites include Colt, Centurion Arms, Bravo Company USA (BCM), SIONICS Weapon Systems, and Daniel Defense. These manufacturers produce a good product right around the sweet spot price point.
If you still have the itch to build, then you should buy a stripped lower receiver to finish. Then pick up a complete upper from one of the mentioned manufacturers.
Let’s Talk Specs
Several years ago, a gentleman by the name of Rob S put together the infamous Chart. In 2009, when I first read it, the chart was a list of technical specifications found in the government M16/M4 family. These specs contributed to the reliability and performance of the rifle.
It also highlighted which manufacturers were adhering to those specifications.
In the years since the chart went public, gun buyers got smarter and more demanding about what they wanted. In response, manufacturers started touting their compliance, lest they be seen as inferior.
These days, the chart is long gone, and nearly all those specs show up on every AR-15 sold. That made it more difficult to tell the difference between a good quality AR-15 and a lesser quality one by only looking only at the spec sheet.
That said, I want to run down the key specification points and offer some tips. This is not a comprehensive detailed breakdown. Each of these topics has their own associated blog post getting into more detail.
Choosing your barrel is a stressful decision for most beginners. There are simply a lot of options out there. I’ve copied some quick takeaways from that much larger article. I highly suggest you check out the full piece on choosing an AR-15 barrel, which prepares you for making this decision.
The barrel, combined with the bolt carrier, is the beating heart of the rifle.
Buy a lightweight profile barrel made from MIL-B-11595E certified steel, which could either be 4150 ORD or CMV. Get it with a chrome lined bore and fixed front sight. This combination is the most versatile for people who own only one AR and need it to do lots of things well.
- The lightweight barrel is accurate enough for target practice and some competition
- Lightweight barrels are easy to carry
- Chrome lined bores and chambers handle high rates of fire better than alternatives
- They handle well indoors for home defense.
- Fixed front towers are the strongest front sight available
- Fixed front towers offer the best accuracy potential with iron sights
I suggest either a 16″ or 20″ barrel. The length primarily affects the velocity and balance of the rifle. Velocity has a huge impact on the trajectory of the bullet as well as its effective range. The 16″ is a good all-around length and a solid choice for most tasks. The 20″ makes a fantastically shootable rifle with a flat trajectory, and is my personal favorite, but comes at the cost of a little more weight.
During the last Assault Weapons Ban, manufacturers pumped out heavy barreled (HBAR) variants. They targeted these towards competition shooters since heavy barrels tended to be more accurate. Their extra mass also helps put up with higher volumes of fire.
The accuracy thing is interesting. But if this is your first AR-15 then you are not likely to take advantage of the increased capability. If you’re already a competitive high power shooter now moving into the AR platform, then a heavier barrel made of SS410 or 416r stainless steel might benefit you.
Otherwise, you are better served by learning the rifle and shooting out the first barrel as you practice. That will take about 20,000 rounds. For most people, that represents may years of shooting, if they ever get there. For professional shooters in competition, that’s about a single season of practice, training, and competition.
It helps when your practice ammo and rebarreling costs are paid for by someone else.
A lightweight profile puts up with plenty of abuse while also being easier to carry and maneuver. Weight matters. I’ve been to many a training class where people start stripping junk off their rifles to save weight.
AR-15 Barrel Material
There are a lot of barrel steels out there. Look for 4150 steel or better, as mentioned before with the government’s 11595E specification. The cheaper 4140 steel isn’t terrible, but 4150 is the minimum government spec for the AR-15. It has a bit more durability for use in firearms due to its higher carbon content.
Stainless barrels are often used in precision rifles. It’s not that stainless is any more accurate than 4150, though. Historically, stainless barrels were easier to machine and polish, while also being more resistant to corrosion. That means manufacturers shorten their supply chain and produce more consistently machined barrels.
Better consistency means better accuracy.
Stainless barrels come with some risks in durability, particularly in very cold weather. For that reason, stay away from lightweight profile stainless barrels. They should always be a medium profile or heavier.
If you want to go the stainless route, then buy one made from 410 or 416r stainless. If you plan to use the rifle in below freezing weather, then stick to 416r.
I chose chrome lining for your first AR-15 because it’s more common, durable, and well understood. Nitrided barrels, which you often see advertised as Melonite/QPQ/Tenifer and other trade names, are barrels treated with a surface conversion process. This makes them very corrosion resistant and it doesn’t have the accuracy trade-off of chrome lining.
The compromise is that nitrided barrels are much less heat tolerant of high rates of fire. This applies more to fully automatic rather than your regular semi-auto rifle. When it comes to nitrided barrels, I really like Faxon’s options, and used one of their 18” gunner profile barrels on a lightweight project.
I know there are nitrided stainless barrels out there on the market. Be cautious here, since the temperature used for nitriding is very close to that used for tempering a barrel. Generally, I would avoid nitrided stainless barrels unless you’re buying from a known high-quality manufacturer who certify the temperatures used in the process.
For more information here, read my article all about barrel nitriding.
AR-15 Twist Rate
Look for a twist rate of 1-7 or 1-8. Some cheaper barrels have a 1-9 twist rate, which work fine for shooting bulk ammo in the 55gr to 62gr range. But if you ever want to use the heavier and more accurate 77gr family of bullets, then you need the faster twist.
If you want more detailed information about selecting the right twist rate for your rifle, head over to my article all about rifle twist rates.
Front Sight Towers or Not?
This topic comes up as a point of contention. I’m fully aware that fixed front sight towers are the “old school” solution by today’s standards. Moreover, finding quality assembled uppers that include a FSB gets more difficult every year. The market expects and demands low-profile gas blocks with longer rails, so manufacturers are doing what the market wants. They are in it to make money, after all.
My reasoning for suggesting a correctly installed FSB is simple, and I alluded to it earlier. It’s the most durable front sight you can have, and is conducive to the best accuracy you can get from a front sight. The former stems from the two large steel pins that hold it to the barrel. The latter is a result of the sight being attached to the barrel itself rather than the handguard, so it moves with the barrel and your zero stays with it.
How useful is that in an era of optics? Well, probably not much. These days, irons are typically the backup option to an optic. There is nothing wrong with going right to a pinned low profile gas block. My argument boils down to this:
- Since I don’t want you to go cheap on an optic, a pinned FSB serves you well as a sighting device for a long time
- Should you get to a point where you don’t want the FSB anymore, it’s easy to cut off the tower and leave the very strong pinned gas block in place
In the meantime, you might find that you don’t mind the tower as much as you thought you would.
Rails and Handguards
Some people are particularly passionate about this. Plastic handguards work well for 95% of shooters out there. They are usually lighter, plenty durable, cheaper, and replaceable. I usually find them more comfortable as well since the shape is ergonomic and internal heat shields help protect my hand after lots of shooting.
I like the Magpul MOE series of plastic handguards.
Should you desire a rail, which is perfectly fine, they come in either free floated or non-free floated format. These days, I see no reason at all to have a non-free floated rail system.
The advantage of free floated rails is two fold:
- First, they offer lots of real estate for attaching accessories like lights or lasers.
- Second, they do not interfere with the barrel during firing. This provides a small, but noticeable, accuracy boost.
There are several well-made rails on the market that are even lighter than plastic handguards. Some of my favorites out there are made by ALG, BCM, and Centurion Arms.
AR-15 triggers are a highly personal thing, and everyone has their own preferences. I suggest reading my longer article about AR-15 trigger selection as a follow-up to this.
When I started out, I went immediately for a $200+ Geissele SSA. Since then, I’ve installed an SSA-E, SD-E, and a Larue MBT. All of those are great triggers.
The last one used an ALG ACT, which simply a coated and polished mil-spec trigger.
I prefer two stage triggers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to go. I love my nice triggers, but I also realize they circumvented the process of learning to squeeze the trigger well. In truth, if I were starting over with my first AR-15, I would stay with a good mil spec trigger like the ALG ACT or BCM PNT for as long as possible.
Lighter triggers are not a replacement for poor fundamentals. A practiced shooter can take any trigger and use it effectively. Poor shooters seek to get “better” by fixing their issues with more gear. Get a decent mil-spec trigger and practice. Once you’ve mastered that, then consider a nicer trigger that gives you the extra accuracy with the skill you’ve already developed.
To be honest, this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Far too many people are getting too complicated with this. The standard A2 birdcage flash hider is perfectly fine, and even desirable, for 90% of users.
But it’s not expensive and fancy, so people want to replace it.
The bottom line is that muzzle brakes and compensators typically make more noise and flash in exchange for “fixing” something that you could do yourself with better shooting mechanics. For the average user, you’re better off spending that money on more practice ammo to get a hold of your fundamentals and recoil management.
For the other 10%, where a brake or comp might be useful, it means that you fall into one of three categories:
- You’re already an expert at very fast shooting and need an extra edge in an action shooting match
- You live in a state that bans flash hiders (sorry about that)
- You have a suppressor that uses a muzzle brake as a sacrificial baffle
If one of those applies to you, then cool. Take your pick, as they all work about the same, and will cause you (and everyone else) the same amount of headache when you shoot it near them.
The Buffer Tube and Stock
The stock is one of those things that most people take for granted. It’s just…there. But it’s also the only part of the rifle that makes contact with two parts of your body: your shoulder and your cheek.
That said, there’s no need to over-complicate this. If you are buying a complete rifle, it probably comes with a pretty good stock already out of the box. Shoot it and enjoy it.
If you are taking the path of assembling your own or want to customize what you already have, then pick what looks good to you from Magpul, BCM, LMT, or B5. They all do their job well, and it isn’t worth sifting through the small differences between them.
For a long time, I advocated for fixed rifle-length stocks. I still enjoy them. I realize that there is a lot of utility sacrificed in the process, though. Fixed stocks offer much more stable cheek welds, which increases accuracy potential. This happens at the expense of adjustability and compactness. What you value more is up to you.
Remember, mission drives gear.
Whichever choice you make, make sure to get the right size. If you go for a rifle length stock, then you will need a rifle buffer tube (technically called the receiver extension). That also requires a different rifle spring and buffer.
Again, whatever path you choose, buy quality. There are small differences in the dimensions between “mil spec” buffer tubes and “commercial.” All of the quality manufacturers follow the “mil spec.”
Aside from the rifle itself, I think a minimum capable AR-15 should have an optic, sling, and white light.
You’ll find thousands of discussions between enthusiasts debating their preferred options. There is an optic targeted to every price point, from ultra cheap to high end. Most people are best served by a red dot sight. This projects a little red dot against an unmagnified lens, and it greatly speeds up the aiming process. It is best suited from 0 to 200 meters, give or take depending on your eyesight.
Optics for Your First AR-15
To keep things simple, I recommend the Aimpoint PRO model. This is a previous generation version of the US Military’s M68 optic. You can find them today for very reasonable prices.
Regardless of the option you choose, expect to spend at least $400 for a quality red dot from Aimpoint, Trijicon, Leupold, EOTech, Vortex, or others.
It’s not cheap. I understand. Stick to your iron sights and master them while you save for the optic. It is not worth buying a cheaper optic in the meantime that could fail on you at any time. But you should still get an optic when you have the funds. Don’t trick yourself into thinking irons are the fundamentals you should learn first and use that as justification to cheap out on a quality optic
Red dot sights are sometimes problematic for people with astigmatism. It turns the red dot into a cluster of red splotches, lines, or other misshapen things. If that’s you, look at prismatic optics, low power fixed magnification, or low power variable scopes.
I also like Trijicon ACOGs for low power fixed options. But at around $1000 give or take for a new one, they aren’t exactly designed for those just getting into the AR-15 world. Primary Arms’s new SLx 1x Gen 2 prismatic also seems like a really worthy mention here as it is 1x magnification like a red dot but is better able to work with people who have astigmatism.
The low power variable (LPVO) market ha been the hot ticket for several years now. There are a lot of really good options here from many manufacturers, often coming in cheaper than an ACOG.
As an aside, please make sure you zero your sights. I’ve come across a lot of people at training classes who just never bothered, and it showed
If you want to use your AR-15 for home defense, you need a flashlight. Lights rated to put up with rifle recoil cost a bit more, but it’s worth it. You also want something with enough power; 100 – 300 lumens is plenty for this purpose. Some people try to push it well beyond what is practical.
My favorites are:
You’ll also need a mount. My favorites come from Gear Sector, Impact Weapon Components, or Arisaka Defense. Make sure you get one matched to your flashlight body diameter and mounting system (1913 rail, M-LOK, etc).
Slings do more than just carry the rifle. I have a long history with variations on the shooting sling, which cinches around the arm to stabilize the rifle. But I don’t think that’s where you should start. A good sling allows you to take up and release slack as needed to adjust the rifle or get more stability.
The top two, in my opinion, are the Blue Force Gear VCAS and the Magpul MS3.
I always recommend two point adjustable slings for new shooters. They will never stop being useful, and can be modified for even more functionality.
The AR-15 is a fantastic rifle, and I’m glad you’re considering one. I consider it the quintessential American rifle these days. There is a lot of information in this article, and I keep it updated as needed to reflect my thoughts and experience. Do your homework, buy quality, and you will have a great experience with your new rifle.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions down in the comments. Feel free to argue with me as well. I’m always open to a different perspective.
First AR ? More like my only AR.
I bought what I could afford.
A 16″ AR Stoner upper from MidwayUsa, a StarLos poly lower, UTG A2-style rear sight module, surplus A4 sight handle for Perry, and 2 tungsten recoil weights.
The budget red dot, someone gave me.
Did you polish this article a little? It’s good. I know I’ve read it before, maybe it’s the formatting.
Anyway, spot on with so many good, solid, reliable and accurate suggestions and philosophies that any newbie or guy who has stepped away from the market for a while, like me, can come back to and reference.
Solid, dawg. Killin’ it.
Yep, I rewrote a lot of it, added some new sections, photography, and redid the formatting. I figured the changes were enough for a repost to.
It is good to re-visit this stuff. I am on board with most of what you said, except for a few items. I have no use for fixed iron sights or plastic handguards. Also, the world of optics has been changing. If all you are looking for is a simple and durable red dot sight, there are plenty of options out there that cost less than the Aimpoint. Sometimes a lot less.
I totally get where you’re coming from, but you aren’t exactly the audience for this article, though. You have enough experience and knowledge to separate good from bad and recognize a good deal. You’re the man when it comes to optics, and it makes sense that you wouldn’t have a use for fixed front sight posts and plastic handguards. My concern is for people who know next to nothing, and then get caught up in bad information and marketing hype. The front sight post is a good example of this. Is it ideal for magnifies optics? No. But is it… Read more »
Didn’t I warn you we will have an argument about this? Let’s start with optics. Iron sights are a great thing to learn on for a healthy 18 year old with young eyes and very limited budget. Even there, simple Magpul folding BUIS will work fine. However, I assume your recommendations should be suitable for a broad range of people with widely varying experience levels, physical condition and eye health. Once you get a little older and your eyes start changing, iron sights become a major limiting factor. They are harder to use for a new shooter even with 18… Read more »
All great points 🙂 I’m with you on the 1x prism sights, I think they are a very interesting option that I just don’t have a lot of experience with. I would love to get my hands on a spitfire for some testing, though. I have a bit of astigmatism that hasn’t gotten bad enough to make red dots and holos useless, but I know it could get there someday. You are absolutely on point regarding helping people actually have fun at the range. It’s important that people feel good about shooting so that they keep coming back. There’s also… Read more »
If sacrifices have to be made, a sighting system is not where I would be doing it. We can argue about handguards, triggers and buttstocks all day long, but these, largely, are not critical. Someone’s first AR should be reliable, reasonably accurate and easy to shoot things with. A simple 1x prism scope will make all the difference in the world if you actually want to hit something. No matter how good the rifle is, if you can’t aim properly, it will be of no use. Reliability and sighting system, in many ways, trump everything else. Nearly all modern ARs… Read more »
I think this series of comments should be extracted and reproduced as it’s own post.
You’re not wrong. I think it would be an interesting post.
I am 55 and I think iron sights are a good starting point. I have to use my glasses to see smaller targets past 100 yards but I can ring steel all day with iron sights at 100 in with no glasses or 2-300 with my glasses. I actually have a 16inch BCM middy with a A2 front sight and a DD fixed rear that I use for iron sight shooting only. I like the challange and honest for CQB stuff I am no faster or slower with my Eotech. I just look over the rear sight (like i was… Read more »
Super post. Sites like this are pure gold.
For southpaw shooters looking to invest in their first AR rifle, what options, or path would you recommend to create an ambidextrous platform?
Al, I shoot ARs left handed. I’m not a fan of brass at my face, so I picked up a left-handed upper from Stag Arms. It ejects on the left side. It may not be the most bombproof option on the market, but it fits me the best. As far as controls, I just picked up an ambitious selector from Strike Industries and a left-side mag release from Troy. Strike Industries just released a left-side mag release that looks promising, though I haven’t picked one up yet. If I can help more, let me know.
Good info. Thanks. The bolt carrier group for the Stag would be specific to the Stag and have to be ordered from them I would guess?
That is correct. The bolts & carriers are proprietary, which is annoying, but I honestly don’t mind what I get in return. I recently put a suppressor on my stag and had no gas in the face issues even knowing how overgassed it probably is.
More good info. Thanks again!
Hey Al, thanks for coming by and I’m glad you like the site! I don’t shoot left-handed, so my experience here is limited. But, when it comes down to it, you basically have three options: 1) Shoot a regular right-handed rifle from the left-hand position and “learn to deal.” This would probably work out just fine, really. The biggest thing you’d have to contend with manipulating the safety and the charging handle. A few mods there are simple though, which gets me to option number two… 2) Swap in some ambi or left-handed parts. Ambi charging handles are pretty common,… Read more »
Super info! Very much appreciated. I’ll run a few more rounds through the range rental unit to see how I feel about the brass flying past my face. At the moment, leaning towards a standard platform with the option 2 mods you mentioned above.
Glad to help, let us know how it works out for you!
As a predominantly left handed shooter, I disagree with using specialty parts. Over the last 15+ years & easily 50k in rounds down range all on standard right hand controls. I know I can pick up almost any AR on the planet and run it. If I became entrenched and relied on speciality parts I would be significantly less proficient with a random AR that I might be firing. Additionally, unless it is purely a range toy that the shooter is never ever possibly using for defense, shooting around barriers, or building clearing. The shooter should be training for shoulder… Read more »
how do you feel about a Ruger for the first AR?
HI Shorty, thanks for coming by and asking! I’m assuming you mean one of the AR556 models, right? Take this with a grain of salt, because I’ve never handled one in person, but I can read spec sheets and make inferences. To me, it looks like they designed it to a specific price point rather than with durability in mind. Some things that stood out to me is that they don’t actually list the barrel alloy material. They used 9310 steel in the bolt, which is probably fine since it’s actually stronger than the standard Carpenter 158. The plastic handguards… Read more »
Thanks for the info! Will be sure to bookmark and continue exploring your articles.Cog
Thanks for reading and commenting, Cog! I always appreciate the feedback, and welcome to the site!
I am surprised you didn’t mention S&W M&P15, which seems to be collecting very good reviews, especially the newer Sport II with FA and dust cover fitted. I just ordered one with 14.5″ barrel as my first AR, I’m currently waiting for it to be delivered at the gun shop. Do you have any experience with this gun? I know it is not a high-end AR, maybe even not a medium one, but keep in mind that this 500$ gun here in Italy becomes 1100€…for a Colt, which was also available, one has to spend like 1600€, a bit too… Read more »
Hi Filippo! First thanks for reading and I’m glad you’re enjoying my work. To your question, I’ve handled a few M&P15 rifles. I don’t think they’re bad by any means, but I do think they make sacrifices in order to reach a particular price point. For example, the spec sheet lists the barrel steel as 4140 steel rather than the more expensive/durable 4150. The barrel is also a 1/9 twist instead of a 1/7 or 1/8 that’s become the norm. I’ve also seen that they do batch testing on their bolts and barrels rather than individually testing each one, as… Read more »
Hey Matt. Great article. I was wondering if you had any experience with or any thoughts on the Springfield Armory Saint line of ARs for a first time buyer.
Hey, thanks for asking! I don’t have any personal experience with the Saint other than seeing it on the rack and handling it a bit. From the spec sheet, it looks as though it would work just fine and feed most ammo well. I can’t find any reports of it having serious problems, but I also can’t find any examples of it running through a thousand rounds in a training course, either. In all probability, it will be a good buy. For the price, I would have directed you towards a Colt 6720, but just about anything colt is near… Read more »
Bought a dpms oracle to get started. Built one to understand the process. Now I want about a 900-1200 rifle. All good points. Wish I would have read this first. I wasted time and money. I built a pistol and hate it. Loud and obnoxious with a diverter. Didn’t know how easy it is to maneuver with a 16”barrel, until I practiced.
Thanks for this write up. I am thinking a Daniel defense or bcm is in my near future. The dpms will get shot to death and just buy a new barrel!
Jarrod, thanks for reading and commenting! A DD or BCM will definitely serve you well. The DPMS isn’t as terrible as a lot of the hardcore guys would have you believe, but it was built to meet a certain price point. I say shoot it until it dies 🙂
Improved irons help me much and I’m legally blind, too. How Troy Industries SOCC rear folding sight and a Blitzkrieg Components LLC Luminescent Green triangle front sight post replacement. Hope this helps.
Hey Mark, thanks for reading and commenting! I’ve always been curious about those blitzkrieg sights. I have an Ashley Performance aight on one of my rifles. It has a white strip that is much faster to pick up.
Matt, this is a terrific write up and had this been around a few years ago I probably would have saved myself a ton of time spent browsing forums and Youtube! I recently re-read this as I currently have a carbine length 16″ with an H buffer and was thinking of switching to a mid length. The carbine length is not that overgassed, but I would like to preserve longevity of the parts and not subject them to wear. What are your thoughts as far as making that switch? Is it kind of moot since I have an H buffer?… Read more »
You could certainly try an H2 and see what it does for you, but I don’t expect you will see much of a difference. The carbine has system is pretty well worked out.
Regarding the barrel flex, it’s true that any leverage further out on the barrel can cause more flex, but I really wouldn’t worry about it unless you’re involved in competition or precision shooting.
It’s very popular to free float everything these days, but remember that we issued these rifles for decades with plastic hand guards and a kings attached even further out.
Hello. Thank you for the post. If you don’t mind, could you check out the DiamondBack DB15 and let me know what you think. It seems to have everything going for it at $529 (except being 4140 vs 4150). I’ve provided a link here… https://diamondbackfirearms.com/portfolio/db15mzb/
Hi Corey, to be honest, I can’t tell a whole lot from the spec sheet they provide. As you said, it does seem to check all of the boxes, which leads me to ask what they did in order to get the price point down. But I’ve never seen, held, or fired a DiamondBack so it wouldn’t be fair of me to give an opinion one way or another.
You probably won’t ever see this because this article is old but all yes. Some input on accessories though, even though the application may be different. For weapon lights, I prefer the OWL as they focus on candela vs lumens. Optics depend on mission, expected engagement range and capabilities of the rifle. In the service I had an eotech holographic with a g33 magnifier on an hk416, an acog on an m4 and an lpvo 1-6x on an cqbr. Most people won’t ever expect to have to design a weapon system to hold a competing measure of lethality against other… Read more »
Hey Austin, thanks for commenting. I’ve never actually come across OWL before, but I like what I can find about it. It seems like a smartly-thought out design. As far as optics, you are definitely correct that they should always align to the expected use case.
Hey great article I’ve been researching for my first gun purchase for several months. I think i have it narrowed down to the mossberg mmr pro chambered in .224 valkarie, it seems like a very quality firearm for the price of 1100 and seems like it can handle self defense hunting and competition/range shooting all very well.
Hey Andrew, thanks for commenting. I’ve got nothing bad to say about the .224, but why go that route for a first gun? The Valkyrie is very specialized for competition and long range.
Well to be fair the choices for decent made relatively inexpensive ie not two grand or more are limited so when i found the mossberg and researched it it really stuck out. And why not go for .224 it seems like a superior .223. I also really like the design and the fact that the gun has a lot of room for anything I decide to put on it.
I totally get that options today might be slim, and there’s nothing saying you can’t get another upper in the future to swap back and forth with. Ballistically, the Valkyrie is superior for long-range precision. But, all things being equal in a non-panic-buying season, the costs of running the Valkyrie in ammunition and parts will be higher. That’s why I suggest most people, except for seasoned match shooters, start with the classic .223 and build up their marksmanship base with something cheaper to practice with.
Excellent article, I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you!
Could you list the specs for the top AR15 shown in the picture featuring two of your AR15s?
Hi John, sure thing. I assume you mean the one with the brown furniture? – BCM 16″ midlength lightweight standard upper complete with BCM BCG – Magpul MOE handguard – An older AAC Blackout flash hider (I’ve since gone back to the A2 birdcage on that rifle) – EOTech XPS-2 on an ADM riser – BCM folding rear sight (made by Troy) – BCM complete lower – Magpul MOE stock with thicker butt pad – BCM Gunfighter pistol grip – Geissele SSA trigger – BAD short throw ambi safety The light is an older VTAC model made by Surefire mounted… Read more »
Looking to buy an AR-15 in the next few months. I see there’s a manufactors in the south east. Any recommendations? Thanks
For Europeans not affected by NFA regulations, do you recommend a 14.5 inch barrel instead of a 16 inch barrel?
Hi Sam, if you are unencumbered by the nuance of the American National Firearms act, then the difference between a 14.5″ and 16″ barrel is more academic than anything. There is just a bit of gain in velocity with a 16″, but it’s probably not enough to really be noticed. Go with what “feels” right to you when it comes to weight and handling characteristics, but I would suggest that if you go with a 14.5″ then you should get it with a carbine gas system, whereas if you go with a 16″ length you should use a mid length… Read more »
Hi I’m looking to buy my first AR I want it for home defense and hunting what would you recommend or everything right out of the box
Hi Ernest, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “everything right out of the box.” Do you include optics and such in that? As far as I know, there aren’t really complete packages like that. Your best bet is to buy a complete rifle (one of the ones I mentioned at the start), and then an optic separately.
What is your opinion on PSA rifles? Most of their rifles seem to hit every benchmark you’ve laid out above. Thanks for the great articles.
Hi David, to be honest I don’t have much direct experience with PSA so I don’t want to make it up. From what I’ve seen of them in competitions and training classes, they do OK- but there have been QC issues in the past and I’ve seen them go down more often than BCM or similar. That said, there’s also different levels of rifle within PSA’s catalog. I like that PSA is an innovative company who is trying to push limits where they can, but I can’t get around asking myself what they’re doing, or not doing, to get to… Read more »
The best line by far: “This isn’t a recipe blog, after all. So, let’s get right to some recommendations.”
I enjoy cooking and baking, and there has been a recent phenomenon over the past couple years of all these online recipes requiring a 3-page essay before giving the recipe (and some don’t even list the recipe but spread it throughout their essay). They think I care about how much their family loves the recipe, the funny stories about mistakes they made in making it, how they discovered it, yada yada yada.
I saw a relatively recent offering from Colt that seems like it would be near-perfect – colt cr6960. Comes with a lightweight profile midlength chrome lined barrel and centurion mlok free float rail. What’s your thoughts on the new Colt rifles?
Oh, thanks for pointing that out. From a quick glance, the CR6920 looks like a new version of the Colt Combat Unit Carbine that I used to suggest until Colt discontinued it. In short, it’s pretty much exactly what I suggest and I think it would be a great option.
Hello. Thanks for all those tips. I am planning to get my first AR. They are very uncommon in my country. Weapons also tend to be quite more expensive than in the US. The local gunstore has a price drop for celebrating their 30 years of existence and every weapon is 30% off on every rifle in stock, making lots of nice rifles accessible. I’m playing with the idea to get a Colt M4 carbine or a POV Puritan. Both very fine weapons that where quite a step up from the rest in my regard. But I don’t know if… Read more »